Gun Machine by Warren Ellis is everything Ellis fans want it to be. It has Ellis’ trademark chemically fueled, cynical antagonist. It contains an extreme amount of violence. It has a thoroughly original and frightening antagonist. It has a snarky, world weary supporting cast. And it has, most surprisingly and welcomingly, a heart. Gun Machine is a postmodern look at gun worship that never gets political or preachy. When a gun is wielded by The Hunter, an anachronistic sociopathic serial killer, it is a tool of profane violence, but when one is used by Detective John Tallow, it is a tool used for justice to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Overall, the novel is a superbly crafted, sharply dialogued view on crime, the history of Manhattan and good versus evil.
Comic fans knew that Ellis was a wonderful craftsman of dystopian stories featuring unique and sharp witted antagonists who must fight a system to ensure a shred of decency remains in the world. Ellis’ trademarks include drugs, lots of coffee and alcohol, copious amounts of porn, over the top violence, scathing social satire and unlikely heroism. In 2008, Ellis released his first prose novel, Crooked Little Vein and all those elements added up to a successful foray into prose for a man whose comic scripts were delighting fans of Marvel, Avatar, Vertigo and DC for years. The book proved Ellis can craft a novel as deftly as he scripted a comic. Somehow, Ellis juxtaposed bitter sarcasm with hope to provide a landscape of brutal honestly combined with the dream of a better tomorrow. In Gun Machine, Ellis takes the same concepts of hope and dirt and sets them against the backdrop of modern day Manhattan. Ellis uses the history of the island and modern technology to create a sweeping tale of murder and mystery.
The story beings when Detective John Tallow and his partner respond to a call of a naked man rampaging through an apartment building with a shotgun. During the ride to the crime scene, Ellis allows the readers to get to know both men, so instantly there is a sense of reader involvement. We now care for the characters riding into a fresh hell of cordite and insanity and when the inevitable happens, Tallow’s partner is blown away, we are thoroughly invested in the loss and in Tallow’s actions to make this moment right. Soon after, Tallow discovers a locked room, a room that contains a mosaic of guns, which are soon discovered to each be a missing weapon in an unsolved murder.
Tallow serves as the weary eyes for the reader. He is a man broken by the apathy and endless politics of his department and his only solace is the honesty of good police work. He is assigned the task of finding out the secrets and the origins of the room as a punishment for dropping the steaming pile of shit into the precinct’s lap in the first place. Tallow is always a step away from snapping. He is lonely, tired and directionless. When readers get a peek inside his life and his apartment they witness a sparse collection of TV dinners and forgotten music. When Tallow isn’t detecting, he is a flat character of unfulfilled ambition and disinterest, but when he starts to be the cop, he is a rich and well defined crime solver who sees through the cracks of an ugly world to find answers. Solving the gunroom is the only thing that gives Tallow’s life purpose and as he begins to unravel the complex conspiracy surrounding the room, he is not intimidated by the powerful men who are responsible, because he has absolutely nothing to lose. Even the most influential man cannot threaten someone who is already half dead. This idea makes Tallow the perfect Ellisian (yeah, I said that) hero, a man who is so thoroughly sick of the world, the world can’t threaten him anymore.
Tallow must face the men who constructed the Gun Church, the Hunter. The Hunter believes himself to be the repository of all the violence and murders in Manhattan’s history. He is used by a group of businessmen in a vast conspiracy of greed and control. The chapters dealing with the Hunter are chilling in their efficiency. He is a coldhearted weapon, a gun himself and Tallow must be able to out think a man whose very instinct makes him the world’s deadliest killer. Ellis creates the perfect foil for each of his characters. Tallow is numbed by the modern trappings of society, while the Hunter is pained by them. Only a man like Tallow, a man not distracted by emotion or the pursuit of worldly pleasures can quiet his mind enough to catch the Hunter. The cat and mouse game the two play throughout the novel is expertly executed by Ellis. Chapter after chapter of the Hunter evading pursuit as Tallow tries to decipher the meaning of his Gun Church.
There is a severe intensity to the novel, as Ellis mires his character in his usual cynical morass of modern day violence, but that is not to say the novel is without humor. The comic relief is provided by Tallow’s two CSI investigators, Scarly and Bat. Scarly is a foul mouthed Lesbian genius who excuses her piercing approach to social interactions by claiming to be autistic and Bat, a lab genius who despises consuming food and calls his body a “death bag.” The two characters are so eminently readable that they deserve their own series. Every scene Scarly and Bat appears in is pure gold and they are the type of characters Ellis’ legions of fans have come to expect. Their weapon is science and their science is as mighty as their foul mouths and towering egos.
Ellis is known for his use of setting, particularly cities and uses them as characters unto themselves. Think of Jack Hawksmoor in the Authority, his connection to a city’s mood and history made him one of the most unique characters in comics and made the city itself an active participant in the adventure. The Manhattan of Gun Machine is no different. Ellis does not flinch from showing the underbelly of the city filled with profane acts of horror, yet he shows the other side of Manhattan as well: art, love, music and community; a side that takes the best parts of every culture and combines them into a super culture of ideas and beauty. Tallow is the guardian of that side of Manhattan and he must defend his city from the Hunter, the city’s darkness given life.
Gun Machine is the novel Ellis fans were hoping for. The only drawback is that there wasn’t enough of it. It would have been so great to see the Hunter stalk through Manhattan a little more or learn more about Tallow before their climatic clash. The book is ripe for a sequel, but there seemed to be more story than the novel gave us. The book could have gotten preachy as gun control is now such a hot button issue, but Ellis never takes sides and, in fact, never even acknowledges the debate. The book is a welcome respite from the gun control debate as Ellis leaves it to his narrative to let readers decide for themselves where they stand on the issue. There is no preach, only punch. There has always been violence and those who commit it will worship the gun and those who wish to combat people like the Hunter will use the gun as a means of much needed defense. In Ellis’ world, evil does not lie in the barrel of a gun, but in the hand and mind wielding it.